Thousands of miles from home, these Americans are shaping our nation’s image abroad and on the frontlines of public diplomacy on the largest international stage this year that will impact generations to come.
Astana, Kazakhstan - In such turbulent times, America’s image abroad has never been more important, or more uncertain. Thankfully in a pluralistic nation like ours the sum total of America’s image is made up by our public and private sectors which always helps no matter the circumstances or times. U.S. public diplomacy is a critical tool in advancing America’s global interests by both forging new international relationships and strengthening old ones. Not simply with leaders and policymakers, but with citizens across the world. This year, the United States has had an incredible opportunity to do just that on the world’s largest stage of 2017: the World Expo in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Over halfway completed, the World Expo focused on “Future Energy” has proven to be a timely global platform for public diplomacy for the 120 nations that have come to tell their unique stories through their pavilions and the millions of visitors that have come to experience what the world has to offer. On that stage, America has been shining.
The reason? Not just the incredible physical structure of the USA Pavilion, with its moving videos and interactive displays. Several other pavilions have those. It’s the 40 American “student ambassadors” that man it, and that have brought the USA Pavilion to life and are living America’s dynamic story out one handshake and smile at a time.
The USA Pavilion student ambassador program is one-of-a-kind. 40 incredible students from across the United States are volunteering as next generation ambassadors and have become the heart and soul of America’s presence in Astana in more ways than can be fully appreciated today. On a day-to-day basis, by operating the pavilion itself, these student ambassadors are changing the way America is perceived one guest experience at a time. From the moment a guest arrives at the pavilion to the second they leave, their entire visit is guided by student ambassadors, welcoming them every step of the way, whether it be by dancing with them at the entrance, or by posing with them at the exit. Each fluent in Russian (and some in Kazakh or 15 other languages they speak along with all quickly picking up Kazakh), the students defy expectations from our guests and winning over visitors with their authenticity, energy, and passion for being here as America’s public faces.
As impactful as the USA Pavilion has been, the student ambassadors have taken it upon themselves to spread their presence at Expo 2017 far beyond the day-to-day operations of our pavilion itself. Eagerly and independently seeking out volunteer opportunities across the city with a variety of unique skills and talents they have arrived with. Our student ambassadors have taken their value at Expo to a whole different level, from visiting local orphanages to volunteering at English-language education courses across this vast land and the world is taking notice.
The student ambassadors have made a huge impact throughout the Expo grounds by creating new and innovative ways to reach out to our fellow international pavilions. One of the biggest hits inspired by the student ambassadors themselves are the adventures of “Steve the Eagle”, a social media campaign featuring the USA Pavilion’s mascot. Steve has now become an Expo stable, particularly enjoying his visits to other pavilions on their national days and often being requested by name from friends across the world (congrats again Papua New Guinea and Japan!). The Expo has now also become familiar with regular visits from student ambassadors donning the identities of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty which have been huge hits with guests and other pavilions alike.
The presence of these enthusiastic next generation American leaders has not gone unnoticed by our gracious hosts in Kazakhstan. Local media has conducted countless interviews with several of our student ambassadors, featuring their work such as an incredible mural of Kazakh warriors done by a student ambassador in the USA Pavilion’s breakroom. Even the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is aware of our student ambassadors, thanks to a fantastic musical performance from one our student ambassadors he took in recently.
While the student ambassadors have been busy making their mark on U.S. public diplomacy at Expo 2017, they have also had the chance to grow and learn from professionals in the field that have come to visit us. The USA Pavilion has hosted several professional development opportunities for our off-duty student ambassadors, including fascinating speakers such as their favorite Ambassador George Krol who happens to also be our USA Pavilion Commissioner, Ambassador Mary Bruce Warlick, Acting Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, U.S. Department of State: Bureau of Energy Resources, U.S. Department of State, David “Chip” Gamble, National Security Council Director for Central Asia, Bela Ferenczi, GE’s CEO in Central Asia and Azerbaijan, and one of our student ambassador’s own father, Ed Zuckerman, a producer and writer known for his work on iconic programs such as Law & Order and JAG.
As President of the USA Pavilion, I’m incredibly proud of the impact these 40 student ambassadors have made through public diplomacy here at Expo 2017 and see the difference they are making everyday.
America and the USA Pavilion is blessed to have such an incredible group representing us. The initiatives these students have taken in representing their country is a huge win for American public diplomacy, and we still have a whole month of Expo 2017 to go. I can’t wait to see what they do next and the true impact this generation has on the next generation of public diplomacy from Astana to the world!
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is the President and CEO of the USA Pavilion at World EXPO 2017 Astana, Kazakhstan.